On 1st January 2014, a little boy was rushed to hospital. He was seven months old at the time and had stopped breathing. The hospital examined him and found that he had bleeding inside his brain (what is called a subdural haematoma) and bleeding in his eyes (what are called retinal haemorrhages). Those things are commonly associated with a child having been shaken. Older readers may recall the trial of Louise Woodward, an English girl acting as a nanny in America, who was on trial for murder as a result of a baby who died with those presentations.
The hospital at the time made a diagnosis that the boy had suffered injuries to the brain as a result of having been shaken. The Local Authority issued care proceedings (very quickly) and the Court went on to hear the evidence and make the decision.
Re N (a minor) 2014
The issue in the case was quite simple (although the evidence involved in proving it is very complex)
1. Did this child stop breathing and mother then shook him (too hard) in an understandable attempt to revive him?
2. Did one of his parents pick him up and shake him, causing the injuries?
What happened in this case, when the finding of fact hearing took place, is that the lead medical expert wanted to know more detail about the parents evidence about the night in question, and having done so, gave his opinion that what they described was wholly consistent with explanation 1, which is what they said had happened.
At the end of the evidence, when the Local Authority were making their submissions, they indicated that they were in agreement that what had happened was version 1 – what the parents had said. The Judge told them that he agreed and that they were right to have accepted that.
At the outset of this fact-finding hearing the local authority invited the court to find that N had been the subject of an abusive non-accidental injury at the hands of one or other of his parents. Having listened to all of the evidence, in particular that of the Consultant Paediatrician Dr Cartlidge, I was told at the beginning of submissions this afternoon that the local authority had modified its position and now accepted that this was an ill-advised resuscitative shake by the mother of N in circumstances which I shall describe in a moment. I indicated that I wholly agreed with the assessment and conclusions of the local authority, and I applaud the local authority for taking the very realistic and sensible course that it has taken in this case
The Judge set out that the hospital were right to have acted as they did, and so were the Local Authority
Accordingly, whilst I in no way criticise the hospital for the approach that they took suspecting non-accidental injury, and in no way criticise the local authority for initiating the child protection procedures that it did making N the subject of a care application and placing him in foster care, I am entirely satisfied, particularly on the basis of the evidence of Dr Cartlidge but also on the basis of the evidence of the parents, that this was an accidental injury. The mother may have been ill-advised to shake, but she did it with no malicious intent, quite the reverse, she did it because she thought she was helping her son. Both the mother, with the benefit of hindsight, and the father in the course of their evidence said words to the effect that the mother may have over reacted in terms of the vigour with which she shook N. Given that I accept that this was a resuscitative shake, it is being too critical in my view to criticise the mother for failing to judge to a nicety that which she did in the extreme panic which I accept she was in at that time. So accordingly I find that N’s injuries resulted from an innocent but ill-advised resuscitative shake by his mother in the early hours of 1 January 2014
That innocent action, though it had terrible consequences for N, was not something that amounted to threshold, and so N would return home to his parents.
The reason why it is only happy(ish) rather than happy, is that the judgment on this case did not get delivered until the end of November 2014 (published today), and so N was living apart from his family for around eleven months whilst this all got sorted out. That seems a dreadfully long time. This is the other side of the coin in the 26 week debate – I grouse all the time about how 26 weeks can be unfair to parents, but if you were these parents, you would really want the case to be finished as soon as possible, because they did nothing wrong but had to live apart from their sick child until the Court could hear the evidence and the truth emerge.
It isn’t really clear from the judgment why it all took so long, but these cases are not easy to deal with. Experts have to be identified and to report, all the records have to be tracked down, where the case is in the High Court it can be difficult to find the time for long hearings. It all adds up.
I don’t know whether anyone has ever done follow-up studies on the impact of children on being apart from their family for this sort of length of time and then successfully rehabilitated. We tend to just walk away thinking of the happy outcome, but it must be really hard for everyone involved to adjust. This young boy of course now has life-altering consequences from his tragic injury, and that’s hard in itself; but you also have two parents who love him who missed out on 11 months of his 17 month life. Will that just repair itself, or will there be knock-on effects on the family for years to come?
I hope not, and I wish them all well.